THE PICTURE of the administration that emerges from Adm. John Poindexter's testimony before the Iran-contra committee is very strange. Its fundamental implausibility is the reason so many people have questioned whether the admiral was telling the truth. Taken together with Col. North's testimony, it depicts an administration sluggish to the point of being downright moribund when it comes to evincing any curiosity about its own most crucial business.
All these high-powered secrets were so explosive they could not be shared with Cabinet officers, let alone with Congress, could not even be vouchsafed to the man -- the president -- in whose name the policies involved were being carried out. But when their disclosure caused a major political uproar and led to Adm. Poindexter's and Col. North's both leaving office, no one bothered to ask just what these secrets were, why the acts involved had been committed. The president, who was subsequently to say how darn much he would like to hear their story, apparently never asked for it. Attorney General Meese seems to have been equally uninterested in the subject he was supposed to be looking into. Nobody seemed to ask anyone else any of the crucial questions, not -- according to Col. North and Adm. Poindexter -- because they all were in on it to begin with (perish the thought), but rather because, well, they just didn't . . . you know how it is.
Except, of course, it usually isn't that way. Consider the unwatched-over funds. A pretty hefty sum of money was scraped up for the contras, both by sale of arms to the Iranians and by private fund raising. Millions were involved. Only a small proportion got to the contras. The contras were in peril, and their survival, as the witnesses testified so vividly and feelingly, depended in large measure on getting this support to them. But Adm. Poindexter tells us that he really didn't know how much money was involved, kept no account of it and did not inquire as to whether it was getting there (for the most part, it was not).
The admiral's forgetfulness was of truly epic dimensions. That critical week in November, only eight well-lawyered months, not eight years, ago, in which many dramatic things occurred in his life is practically a blank to him. Of his two-hour lunch with William Casey on the fateful Saturday, he can remember only the menu. How could he not have noticed what was going on when he was at the center of the storm, planning the president's response, deciding to destroy documents, being told that he should leave the White House and the rest?
Suppose in fact it all happened as they said. Stipulate the truth of their account. It presents an administration absolutely simple-minded, totally incompetent. Is that the defense? Is that the explanation? Or, to get to the heart of what is on people's minds just now, is that the truth?